SACRAMENTO — Support for Gov. Jerry Brown's plan for billions of dollars in tax hikes on the November ballot is slipping amid public anxiety about how politicians spend money, but voters still favor the proposal, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.
The findings suggest that voters are leery of sending more cash to Sacramento in the wake of a financial scandal at the parks department, spiraling costs for a multibillion-dollar high-speed rail project to connect Northern and Southern California and ill-timed legislative pay raises.
Brown's measure would temporarily raise income tax rates on high earners for seven years and boost the state sales tax by a quarter-cent for four years in a bid to avoid steep cuts in funds for schools and other programs.
Fifty-five percent of registered voters say that they back such an increase, a drop from May, when 59% of voters supported it. The new poll shows 36% of voters opposed, with the remainder undecided.
Views swing widely by political affiliation. Among Democrats, 72% favor the proposal. Only 27% of Republican voters support it. Sixty-three percent of independent voters approve.
An intense opposition campaign could derail the governor's initiative, Proposition 30. Support drops to 48% when voters are presented with arguments they might hear before the Nov. 6 election. Foes of the measure say, for example, that government wastes too much of the money it already has.
"An ongoing debate can make this very close," said Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, one of two firms that conducted the bipartisan poll. The other company, American Viewpoint, is a Republican concern.
The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll surveyed 1,504 registered voters by telephone from Sept. 17 to Sept. 23. The margin of error is 2.9 percentage points.
Brown, whose approval rating has dipped 3 points since May to 46%, has said the state needs new taxes because budget cuts alone won't solve its financial problems. He's counting on voters like Gerardine Gauch to turn out on election day.
The 60-year-old prison psychologist from Monterey County said California is facing the hard reality that it's no longer a sun-splashed land "where everything goes fine forever."
"When you're growing up, you have to choose what's valuable and what's not," said Gauch, a Democrat. "And you have to pay for what's valuable."
Others are skeptical of Brown's vow to cut almost $6 billion from the budget if taxes don't pass, with public schools taking most of the hit. The threat hasn't budged voters like Anna Carson, a 60-year-old Republican from San Diego.
"They use education as the emotional hook," she said. "It's just baloney."
Tiffany Axene, a 32-year-old Republican from Riverside County, won't support the tax hikes either, even though she has four small children who could be bound for public schools. "I'm just tired of seeing people who make money get taxed and taxed," she said.
Younger Californians are some of Proposition 30's most consistent supporters, with 77% of registered voters ages 18 through 29 in favor. Support slides to 47% among respondents older than 64. Voters with children of school age or younger fall in between, supporting the measure 59% to 35%.
The outcome in November could be influenced by the 8% of respondents who are unsure how to vote — and by whether opponents of the proposal can muster the resources to sway them.
"The biggest question now is whether the opposition will have the money to get their argument heard," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former GOP political consultant.
Another measure on the ballot that would raise taxes for schools, Proposition 38, is trailing far behind. Only 34% of registered voters say they support the initiative, which would hike levies on most Californians for 12 years on an upward scale according to income. A majority of voters, 52%, say they oppose it.
"It's a goner," said David Kanevsky of American Viewpoint, noting that support for a ballot measure rarely grows as a campaign goes on.
The measure still could have an impact in November, however, by siphoning support from the governor's initiative. The campaign for Proposition 38, backed by millionaire Molly Munger, began running a statewide television advertisement this week that warns against more money for Sacramento, tapping into voter cynicism.
The funds raised by Munger's measure could be used only for schools, early childhood education and reducing government debt, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. Money raised by the governor's initiative would be available for schools and other spending in the state's general budget, the analyst says.
Brown and Democratic lawmakers, who built the state's budget around the governor's initiative, say the Munger plan would not provide funds fast enough to avoid cuts in the current fiscal year.
That argument resonates with Warren Cushman, a Democrat. "We have to go along with [the governor's measure] at this point," said the 43-year-old social services advocate who lives near Oakland. "Otherwise we're going to have a severe budget impact."
The outlook is better for Proposition 39, a measure to change corporate taxes in California. It would raise roughly $1 billion annually by adjusting the tax code so that companies doing business in California with operations mostly based outside the state would pay more than they now do.
The money would be split between alternative-energy projects and the state's general fund for five years. After that, it would all go to the general fund.
The proposal has a slim 51% majority behind it. Only 29% disapprove.
Dale Bond, 60, of Oakhurst, in Madera County, said he supports the measure even though he opposes the tax hikes championed by Brown and Munger. A Republican who owns an auto repair shop, he's concerned that out-of-state companies aren't facing the same taxes as local businesses.
"They should pay their fair share," he said. "They need to pay their dues to do business in California like we do."
Despite the prospects of a heftier tax bill for several major multinational corporations, none has stepped up to organize a No campaign. Greenberg said the companies may be wary of creating a public relations problem.
"My guess is they don't want the kind of exposure that comes with opposing this," he said. "There is a price to be paid. It looks like you are dodging [tax] obligations…. It is clear they made a decision they should not be visibly trying to defeat this."